Copts People


Copts are a Christian group native to Egypt and today make up around 10 percent of the total population of the country. The Coptic language belongs to the Afro-Asiatic group, but was generally replaced with Arabic by the 14th century and is reserved for reli-gious services, though even some parts of the service are now in Arabic. Copts speak various dialects of Egyptian Arabic in daily life. The Coptic language is written in a modified version of Greek script, but the language is the last development of the lan-guage of ancient Egypt.

The Coptic faith spread beyond the borders of Egypt into Nubia and Ethiopia early in the fourth century.The word Copt, or Qubt in Arabic, comes from the name of the town Coptos (modern Quft) in Upper Egypt, though others argue that it comes from the Greek Aegyptos or Egypt. That term derives originally from the name of the ancient city of Memphis, Ha-Ka-Ptah or the House of Ptah, which the Greeks corrupted into Aegyptos.

Copts believe that Christianity was brought to Egypt by Saint Mark in the first century CE and the Coptic calendar, or Calendar of the Martyrs, dates from 284 CE when the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecutions of Christians included the martyrdom of the Coptic patriarch. The Coptic calendar is solar based and is linked to the agricultural year. It uses the ancient Egyptian names of the months di-vided into three seasons of four months each. Christianity spread quickly among Egypt’s Greek-speaking urban population, but much more slowly among rural Egyp-tians.

Because it is believed that Saint Mark first landed in Alexandria, it is the seat of the patriarch of the Church.Copts diverged from the official Chris-tianity of the Roman/Byzantine state in 451, leading to conflict between the Mali-kite or Christianity of the King (malik) and the monophysitism of the Copts. Byzantine persecution of Copts prior to the Arab conquest in 641–643 caused many Copts to welcome the Arabs.

The Prophet’s wife Maryam was a Copt, and she was the mother of his short-lived son Ibrahim. Copts served in the first Arab administrations of the province, and the Coptic language was used by the state until replaced by Arabic under the Umayyad Khalifah ‘Abd al-Malik (685–705). Copts remained in government service, and a number rose to important positions under Islamic rulers.

Copts are mainly rural peasants with the largest numbers in Upper Egypt, exceeding 2 million. In Coptic marriage patterns, divorce is not allowed except in the case of adultery, and marriage can only be among their fellow Copts, indicating that they see themselves as the true desc-endants of the ancient Egyptians. Copts, like Muslims in Egypt or Sudan, practice circumcision for boys and girls, who have the clitoris removed. Excision of the clito-ris is a practice shared with many other peoples in Africa.

Most Copts tattoo a cross on their wrists, and according to folklore among the peasants, their fellow Coptic Ethiopians will one day conquer Egypt and spare only those who have the tattoo. In the past, Copts also had the date of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem tattooed on their arm. Cross confessional popular practices are common among the peasants, with Muslims and Christians visiting each other’s shrines and asking for both bless-ings and protection against evil.

There are mixed Muslim-Christian villages, but others in Upper Egypt are pre-dominately one or the other. Coptic villages or neighborhoods are dominated by the local church bell tower, and church services in the countryside are separated by gender; men and women are separated by a screen, and children are with the women.

Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter follow the Eastern Christian calcu-lations using the Julian calendar. Holidays are preceded by fasts, and Copts are required to endure long periods of fasts. The holiday Sham al-Nasim (“sniffing the breeze” in Arabic) is an ancient Egyptian festival to welcome spring and usually falls on the Monday of Coptic Easter. Sham al-Nasim is today a national holiday celebrated by all Egyptians, Christians, and Muslims.

Official persecution of Copts increased especially during the Mamluk period (1250–1517). Copts rose in a number of rebellions but, in 1354, the rebellion resulted in large conversions to Islam. Under the Ottomans, and later under the dynasty founded by Muhammad ‘Ali (1805–1849), the position of Copts improved. Copts were allowed to serve in the military, and Copts were part of the Wafd Party that emerged to counter British colonial interests in Egypt shortly after World War I.

Copts are full citizens in Egypt and are subject to a few constitutional restrictions, such as the president of the republic must be a Muslim—and therefore, any position that can fill in for the president cannot be held by a non-Muslim. Butrus Butrus Ghali, a prominent Copt, served as Egypt’s foreign minister under Anwar al-Sadat and was the general secretary of the United Nations. Until 2005, there were restrictions on the construction and repair to churches and monasteries that require the approval—and signature—of the president. The Egyptian government also recognized January 7, Coptic Christmas, to be a national holiday in 2002. Despite these government deci-sions, many Copts feel the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism and believe they are subject to attack.

In January 2010, a Coptic service in Alexandria was the target of a bomb that killed 21 people, and letters were sent to Coptic churches in Europe telling them they were also targets for more bombs by radical Islamists. The Egyptian government, as well as security services in France and Germany, went on high alert for the Coptic Christmas mass, and there was a large out-pouring of official and unofficial support for the Copts.

The Christmas mass was attended by a number of leading public fig-ures and was fully televised on a number of Egyptian channels. In subsequent weeks, Egyptian television has carried a number of interviews with Coptic officials includ-ing Baba Shenudah, head of the church. The unity of Muslims and Copts, a long his-toric theme that was emphasized during the 1919 Egyptian uprising against the British, was evoked by the Egyptian government.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Abdel Sayed, Gawdat Gabra. Coptic Monas-teries. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002.

Atiya, A. S. “Kibt.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam,2nd ed., CD-ROM.

Ayrout, Henry Habib. The Egyptian Peasant.Translated by John Williams. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005 reprint of 1963 edition.

Blackman, Winifred. The Fellahin of Upper Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000 reprint of 1927 edition.

Capuani, Massimo, Otto Meinardus, and Marie-Helene Rutschowscaya. Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments through Two Millennia. Collegeville, MN: Liturgi-cal Press, 2002.